chris j wallace

Speaking is Hard

March 28, 2019

I did not start this blog with the intention to simply enumerate things that are hard. But, like writing, I’m a little out of practice at giving talks, and I recently started giving talks again.

I’m not completely new to speaking in front of an audience. During my PhD years I gave presentations to hundreds of people who were far more expert on many aspects of the things I was talking about than I was. That was some time ago, but I’ve presented at the odd meet up or small conference since. Nonetheless, speaking is hard.

I remember being a PhD student and feeling like most academic talks I heard sucked. I’m still surprised how often I see speakers break the Golden Rule:

Don’t go over time.

If the rest of your talk totally rocked and you run five minutes over, the audience will grumble that your talk ran five minutes over, not shout about how much your talk rocked. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever seen a talk that was totally rocking go over time, and I’ve definitely never seen someone go over time and continue to have the talk be good in the extra minutes. My (relatively unqualified) advice, if you realise you’re going to run over time, is to cut scope. Simply don’t include a section, or reduce it to “there’s some neat stuff here, and I’d be happy to talk about it to anyone who is interested during the coffee break”.

I once had the pleasure of seeing theoretical physicist David Tong speak. He provides many examples of how to give a great talk (to physicists), but also has a talk specifically about giving talks. It’s targeted at theoretical physics PhD students, but I think his advice applies much more widely than academia, and I suggest everyone follow it. It’s aptly named How to Make Sure Your Talk Doesn’t Suck.

Gary Bernhardt outlines a novel and concrete method for preparing a talk in How to Prepare a Talk. I don’t think my process is quite the same as outlined there (maybe it should be), but it definitely involves a lot of presenting to empty rooms in my house. The only route I know to giving a good talk is to put in a lot of time.

I just recently spoke at DataWorks Summit Barcelona on the subject of Federated Learning, and will be speaking again at Strata London on 1st May 2019 on the same.